The Invisible Man: A Taut Twist on a Horror Classic
Rarely has the slow pan been used to such indelible effect in a horror movie. Flexing the the many filmmaking muscles he first showed off in 2018’s Upgrade, director Leigh Whannell repeatedly returns to one of the simplest in his latest, The Invisible Man. Each time his camera panned deliberately across a room (or a porch, an attic, a hospital hallway), I felt the same tension and fear that Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) felt. Is someone there? Is he there? Where is he? The Invisible Man is just as much about what isn’t there as what is, and Whannell uses the tools of a horror master to build physical and psychological dread with a purpose, putting audiences into the the mind of a trauma survivor. There is no greater threat than the one constantly lurking around the corner. In Universal’s latest non-attempt to reboot the Dark Universe, the studio wisely gives latitude to its writer-director, Whannell (Saw, Insidious), allowing him to pull inspiration and little more from H.G. Wells’ classic novel and its faithful 1933 adaptation. Cecilia Kass (Moss) has escaped an abusive relationship with a wealthy optics innovator, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), physically if not mentally. He subsequently commits suicide, leaving Cecilia with $5 million, bequeathed through a trust administered by his brother, Tom (Michael Dorman). But is he really gone? It’s evident from the first moment that Whannell is in complete control. Cecilia’s opening escape is brilliantly choreographed, the camera gliding from close-ups to long-shots, letting the architecture of their opulent house come between her and the screen, losing her, finding her again, until finally a thundering score accompanies her entrance into the forest. And unlike the occasional empty cool of Whannell’s last film, The Invisible Man builds tension with a purpose. Early stylistic flairs include a shot peeking around the corner as Cecilia celebrates with her new temporary roommates, James Lanier (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), and a perfectly timed distortion of sound when she takes her first step outside after a long week of hiding - both accurately capture the justified fear and paranoia that riddle survivors of abusive relationships long after the physical ties are cut. And present or not, Adrian exercises that same control over Cecilia. He does it through money. He does it through fear. And in a painfully relevant twist on the classic tale, he does it through gaslight - as Cecilia describes at one point, “This is what he does. He makes me feel like I’m the crazy one.” When Whannell tells us about Adrian’s control over Cecilia, it can get a bit clunky, especially in a spate of on-the-nose dialogue as Cecilia describes his power over her to James and her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer). But when he shows instead of tells, The Invisible Man creates a visual language all of its own. Taking advantage of impeccable production design from Alex Holmes, Whannell and cinematographer Stafan Duscio uses negative space and lighting to great effect, delicately guiding our eyes to a corner that may not be empty, an object that may not have been there a moment before, a door that we can’t remember if it was closed. We’re left feeling as powerless as Cecilia - until, inevitably, she seizes control with grace and force. As always, Moss inhabits her character. Alternatingly vulnerable and resolute, she wears trauma in her posture, shows terror in her reactions to every-day occurrences. And as Cecelia insists that her ex is invisibly haunting her, Moss responds viscerally to the sense of helplessness imposed by both Adrian and all those who refuse to believe her. She invites us to empathize with her pain, compelling us to acknowledge it. The film takes perhaps one too many twists and turns, the finale feeling a bit overwrought and predictable. It’s clearly in love with its own clever concept - not without fault, of course, but the self-satisfaction smirks through at times. And for a movie that often cares more about its main character and her story than its audience (a good thing, in my opinion), there’s a disappointing lack of women behind the camera. A small complaint, but a real one. In the long history of horror films as vehicles for social ills, The Invisible Man is a worthy entry. Inoculating itself against bad-faith claims that movies have “gotten too political,” it’s also a taut thriller that expertly dragged me to the edge of my seat and then slammed me against the back of my over-sized, comfy-couch theater chair. In short, The Invisible Man is why we go to the movies.